As he caught parts of the Baltimore-Pittsburgh and Denver-Kansas City games while at home for Christmas, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera couldn’t help but feel a bit wistful.
Both games had major implications in the AFC playoff picture. Meanwhile, for the first time since 2012, the Panthers are playing out the string.
“It was tough (watching the Sunday games). It was, because you want to be part of the conversation. You really do,” Rivera said. “And we’d been part of it for three years. It is a tough pill to swallow, personally.”
Rivera gave his players three days off after the Panthers (6-9) were officially eliminated from the postseason with Saturday’s 33-16 loss to Atlanta.
Quarterback Cam Newton said the team could use a longer break – he called it a “sabbatical” – after a season that started with Super Bowl hopes will end anticlimactically in Tampa on Sunday.
The Panthers can finish no better than fourth place in the NFC South regardless of Sunday’s outcome at Tampa Bay. Carolina will go from first to worst in the division after winning an unprecedented three consecutive division titles.
“I believe this is a blip, I really do. This is one of those things – and I’ve said it to the team and I’ve said it before – if you don’t learn from this, then you’ve wasted it,” Rivera said. “I know it hasn’t been what we expected, what I expected. But I do know this: I’m gonna learn from it, I’m gonna grow from it and we’ll be better. I really believe that.”
Carolina can’t even embrace the role of spoiler this week after the Buccaneers (8-7) were all but eliminated during the weekend.
Tampa Bay needs a miracle-type scenario to come together to make the playoffs. It involves the Washington-New York Giants game ending in a tie, a result the Panthers needed when they were still clinging to hope.
With one game remaining, Rivera wasn’t interested in going down the what-went-wrong path Monday at his weekly news conference.
A big part of the Panthers’ problems have centered on Newton, who followed his MVP season of 2015 with the worst season of his career.
Including Saturday’s loss to Atlanta, Newton has failed to complete 50 percent of his passes in five of the past six games. He’s almost guaranteed to finish with the lowest completion percentage and passer rating of his six-year career.
Critics say Newton’s throwing mechanics have regressed – a theory Rivera didn’t entirely shoot down.
“There are some times that you do see it,” Rivera said. “He is playing with a bad shoulder, trying to do the best he can with that.”
The Panthers have limited Newton’s practice throws the past two weeks as he tries to play through his shoulder injury. Rivera said injuries along the offensive line all season also hindered Newton’s production.
He also said there are times when Newton’s footwork is clearly off.
“You see some really good balls that he throws. And just some things that show you that he’s got that ability,” Rivera said. “And then every now and then you will see something that you sit there and go, ‘Ah, come on. Let’s have better footwork.’ Stuff like that.”
Rivera said he’ll talk to his team this week about setting a tone for the offseason and 2017 with its preparation this week for what amounts to a meaningless game.
The Panthers continued the so-called curse of the Super Bowl loser, becoming the 23rd consecutive runner-up to fail to make it back to the game the following season.
With Denver getting eliminated Sunday night, it’s the first time in 13 years both of the previous season’s Super Bowl teams failed to reach the playoffs. The defending-champion Bucs (7-9) and the Raiders (4-12) stayed home in 2003.
The Super Bowl talk that dominated discussions of the Panthers since February has died down.
The play of Newton, injuries to center Ryan Kalil and left tackle Michael Oher and Carolina’s 1-5 start doomed any chance the Panthers had at playing in Super Bowl 51 in Houston.
“That’s all people talked about us doing. When people know we’re a powerful team and we lose key people here and there, you end up with a season like this,” safety Tre Boston said. “Next year we’ve just got to come back, we’ve got to be healthy, we’ve got to get on the same page early in the season, win games early and see how that treats us.”
Boston pointed to Carolina’s 2-5 record in games decided by a field goal or less as evidence the Panthers were “not that far away.”
“I hate to say it like that because we’re not even going to make it to the playoffs,” he added. “But there’s five games in there, we lose by three. You take those five games and put them in the win column, it’s a whole different ball game. It’s a whole different season.
“But we can’t talk about ifs and whats. We’ve got to come back and we’ve got to work for it.”